Sundance Film Festival 2023 is underway and as always, is offering the best of the best in and out of the horror genre for its audiences including The Night Logan Woke Up, a new episodic thriller from multi-hyphenate talent, Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother).
Set in Quebec and presented in Canadian French, Sundance presented the first two hour-long episodes of the new series as part of its Indie Episodic program. Dolan and a brilliant cast tell the story of a family who gathers together as its matriarch dies.
Of course, all is not well in the family. If it were, there wouldn’t be much to talk about, right?
Over the course of two intense episodes, we play voyeur to eldest brother Julien’s infidelity, younger brother Denis’s strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughters, and youngest brother Elliot’s iffy recovery from drugs and alcohol.
And then there’s Mireille, the only sister in the family, estranged from them for years after the events that took place thirty years before when she snuck into her crush’s room in the middle of the night. Something horrific happened that night, something that changed the family forever, and we’re given the first initial inklings of that as the series begins.
Dolan, who also plays youngest brother Elliot, wrote and directed the series based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, and he’s assembled a dynamic cast, many of whom starred in the original theatrical production, to bring the story to life.
Patrick Hivon bristles as Julien, who holds onto the past almost suffocating under the weight of it. Eric Bruneau brings heart and emotional availability as the middle son, always trying to please, always trying to do the right thing. As Elliott, Dolan treats us to a hyper-charged performance. You can feel him teetering, threatening to fall into old habits. His world is made of cracked glass that could shatter beneath him at any moment.
As for Mireille, Julie LeBreton brings a beautifully layered performance to the series. She is the darkened heart of this family mystery, and her every move and turn of phrase seems calculated to the tiniest decimal point. She decimates and heals with alacrity heightened by LeBreton’s ability to deliver rage at a whisper.
By the end of the second episode, I was on the edge of my seat.
I don’t just want to know what happens next; I need to know. Dolan has done a fine job teasing out the backstory of The Night Logan Woke Up. He seems to have an innate understanding of how much detail is just enough to keep his audience interested without giving too much away.
It’s a talent that far too few writers in genre entertainment seem to possess anymore, and it’s a treat to see it play out so beautifully.
The Night Logan Woke Up is brought to the screen by StudioCanal. The series premiered in 2022 on Club Illico in Canada and is set for a wider relase after its Sundance screenings.
[Sundance Review] Brutal ‘Talk to Me’ Might Be Festival’s Best Midnight Title
Australian horror movies are some of the best of the genre. They aren’t afraid to push the limits of both stories or gore. It’s apparent from the beginning that Talk to Me is moving across — way across — those same lines.
In this film, zoomers are caught in the supernatural crossfire after performing a trendy seance challenge by using a preserved hand and forearm of a psychic. This is their gateway to the other world where demons plot to manipulate human lives. All it takes is to shake the outreaching hand like a “test your strength” carnival game to make contact. It’s also a great Tik Tok ready experiment where views are likely to climb.
With all their teenage pomp, when these friends get together, it feels a bit like HBO’s Euphoria with a Conjuring twist. I’d even go so far as to compare it to The Evil Dead, the monsters here are just as intense and ugly. There is also a heavy James Wan influence from back in his Insidious days. Couple all of these things with a Creepypasta-type story and you can imagine what kind of hell is going to cross over.
At first, the teens have fun getting possessed one by one, filming each scenario. That is until one of them is overtaken by a forceful spirit that violently injures its host by forcing him to bash his head against hard surfaces. But not before manipulating him to pluck out his own eye and then squeamishly performing in a tongues-and-all-make-out session with a pet bulldog. You read that right.
The brutality is unhinged.
The adults are certain the teens are doing hard drugs in the aftermath of the injuries. If only real drugs were the case. The kids get a “high” on these possessions, but in doing so, have unknowingly ripped a hole between the real world and the hereafter where evil spirits come through and manipulate the game’s participants.
Our troubled protagonist, Mia (Sophie Wilde) is convinced she has made contact with her dead mother through one of the sessions. It’s a heartwarming moment, the only one, in this relentless barrage of disturbing images you can’t unsee.
The film is directed by YouTuber twins Danny and Michael Philippou. Despite their small screen medium, these guys have a future on larger venues. Talk to Me is an amalgam of mined ideas but this duo makes them better. Even as far as sticking an almost perfect landing which you know in this genre is a rarity.
It’s also refreshing to see them allow our main character, Mia, to slowly slip into madness without pulling cheap stunts just to appease the intended audience. Each scare is purposeful, each monster is developed and what they have to say is important.
Wilde never lets the genre get the better of her. She plays Mia with a subdued sense of weakness. You can see, had it not been for the passing of her mother, this young lady would not fall under the traps of silly peer pressure. To pull that many layers out of an actress is not the result of an expensive acting workshop, but the sign of a future star honing her craft.
It appears the directors saw the talent in Wilde and focused on that instead of some of the other actors. Alexandra Jensen as Jade plays the supportive best friend, but not to the levels of a final girl we are used to. And Joe Bird as Riley, the possessed one, is terrifying as the harbinger of hell.
The Philippou’s probably screamed out loud when veteran actress Miranda Otto (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Annabelle: Creation) said okay to the script. She is amazing in everything she does. She brings polish to an already shining movie.
There isn’t much fault to be pointed out in Talk to Me. The cinematography deserves a slight upgrade, and the collective ideas of past works are undeniably present, but the film never tries to improve upon those ideas by being extra. It’s fully aware that it is borrowing, but what the filmmakers pay back is worth far more than what was taken.
Talk to Me is a part of the Midnight section of Sundance Film Festival 2023.
[Sundance Review] ‘Infinity Pool’ is a Bleak Examination of Identity
Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool arrived at Sundance Film Festival with a not-so-surprisingly bleak look at wealth, sex, and identity with body horror to spare.
Alexander Skarsgard stars as James Foster, an author suffering from writer’s block, who travels with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) to the fictional island of La Tolqa. Visitors to the island are required by law to stay inside their resort compound, but after meeting up with the mysterious uber-wealthy couple Alban and Gabi (Jalil Espert and Mia Goth), they find themselves outside the gates.
On their way back to the compound, James hits a man with his car, killing him instantly, and is subsequently–without trial–sentenced to death. That’s when they offer him a deal. They have the technology to create a complete replica of him, with all his memories intact, who can die in his place.
Who would turn down a deal like that?
It begs the question, however: What does one do after you’ve seen yourself die? How do you recover from that?
Of course, James struggles with the answers for the next two hours. Skarsgard gives a brilliant performance in the role. Watching him break over and over and over again is terrifying and heart-breaking. And yet, there was more than one occasion where I wanted to shake him and tell him to snap out of it.
This is, in large part, due to Cronenberg’s writing and direction. He has taken a page out of his father’s handbook, broadly painting a canvas in which the wealthy cannot be trusted (duh), the poor will continue to do what’s bad for them because the rich tell them to (again, duh), and the only person who will suffer consequences of their actions are the poor who allowed themselves to be manipulated by the wealthy.
Sex is bad. Abstaining is bad. Wealth is bad. Being poor is bad. Life is bad. Death is bad. Making mistakes is bad. There is no such thing as a moral high ground except where Cronenberg, himself, is standing as the director/writer/god of the world he’s created.
Bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak.
Don’t get me wrong. It works. I enjoy the darkness of this kind of story. The visuals in the film will stick with you long after the credits roll. The body horror, itself, puts his father’s work to shame at times, as does his handling of the sex in Infinity Pool.
The problem was, as I sat considering the film afterward, I couldn’t help that I’d seen it all before, so the question becomes, “Was it all really necessary and could the same story be told in a way that was more effective?”
Mostly, I would say yes. Along with Skarsgard’s performance, Mia Goth is ravenous and wild in the role of Gabi. She is unhinged in interesting ways, often taking on the role of aggressor in unexpected twists. She is, ultimately, James’s foil, and she knows it almost from the moment they meet.
Goth reportedly received the sript for Infinity Pool while filming Pearl, the sequel to Ti West’s X. One can see a bit of overlap in the characters. The only real difference is that Pearl is the opposite of wealthy and therefore, her decisions come from an entirely different place.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else to be discussed without getting into heavy spoilers, and I do try to avoid those as much as possible. The only question that really remains is: Was it good?
For some, this will be the best movie of the year. For others, it will be hated on principle. For this viewer, there is only one unforgivable sin a horror film can commit, and that is to be boring. Whatever else it is, Infinity Pool is not boring.
Check out the trailer below!
[Sundance Review] ‘In My Mother’s Skin’ is a Horrific Fairytale
From the opening shot of Kenneth Dagatan’s In My Mother’s Skin, viewers are warned of what they are in for. It’s a vision of starved dead bodies, but as the camera pans to the left, something is feeding on them.
This scene takes place at the end of World War II in the Philippines. A young man named Aldo and his family are held captive by a troop of Japanese invaders who hijack his mansion looking for an alleged stash of gold.
Aldo heads out on his own in the dead of night to get help, leaving his sick wife (Beauty Gonzalez) with their two children, a daughter named Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), and a young son, Bayani (James Mavie Estrella). After a day, the former is certain her father has been killed, and to sway her thoughts, she and her brother set out to search for him, but encounter a strange but beautifully dressed woman in a rundown cabin.
Dagatan (Ma–2018) pulls a heavy amount from Hansel and Gretel at this point. But infuses his fairy tale with horrific images of a country at war, including its gruesome casualties, their faces frozen in terror left to decompose in the open.
In addition, unlike the Grimm tale, the antagonist isn’t a fearsome old witch, but a beautiful woman dressed in regal finery with a holographic winged fascinator highlighting her face. The movie leans in heavily toward the Virgin Mary symbolism. It’s not quite a Guillermo del Toro creature creation, but no less unsettling.
The director teases his audience determined to keep them curious about underdeveloped parts of the storyline. Some may call this a slow burn. For instance, the ailing mother is given a cure by her daughter — a gift she receives from the fairy —- but its effects are seemingly malevolent and she appears to become slowly possessed over a period of days.
The film suggests that believing in something out of desperation might be comforting in the short term, but if said belief is only disguised as good, how mindlessly controlling is faith? And is it too late to undo what has already been done? This is also a metaphor for war and greed, two of the film’s other contentions.
Only part of the horror in In My Mother’s Skin comes from the mother’s gradual possession. The other is how young minds, like Tala’s, when left to fend for themselves often react impulsively without critical thought. This is in contrast to Disney’s homogenized world where children have the ability to lead without experience, face evil using alchemy, and survive horrific situations, emerging mentally unscathed.
For our heroine Tala, just like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, the harsh universe in which she lives hints at a path leading to the realms of fantasy. But that world, helpful in the short-term, is just as corrupt, filled with its own deceptive beasties.
What In My Mothers Skin makes painfully clear in its own narrative is that religion, especially Catholicism, and its precepts, mirror fairy tales and are littered with blind faith. Tala’s expansive house has alters dedicated to Catholic deities but their protective power never materializes even as forces, both human and supernatural, wreak havoc upon them. Dagatan seems to be saying that evil is the only power that will show itself to humans in real-time while faith compensates later.
In My Mother’s Skin is a grandiose fairytale steeped in Guillermo del Toro’s influence. Beautifully framed landscapes are dimly lit in a gray-blue scale, befitting a world filled with dread and tragedy.
Napuli gives Tala a false sense of resilience in her teenage blind ambition. She wants to be the strength that saves her family, but she is just misguided. As a young actress, this can be hard to express in live action, maybe better suited for a Disney voiceover, but Napuli takes on the challenge with terrifying aplomb.
Dagatan (and we the viewer) know his story isn’t headed toward a Disney ending. His princess, bloodied and affected, has endured too much for that. It is in the final words of dialogue before the credits roll that this film projects its wisdom unto the audience, but like in most deceptive fairy tales endings, there really is no “Happily Ever After.”
In My Mother’s Skin is a part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023 line-up.